Fears run deep over China's rise

Greg Torode says while Sino-US rivalry worries the region, it's the larger question of coping with an assertive China that rouses real fear

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 7:14am

Recent warnings from a former Japanese diplomat that the US has for years manipulated Japanese politicians, and their foreign policies, against China are being eagerly received in Beijing, stoking both paranoia and an increasingly lively propaganda script. The death throes of Pax Americana, so the story goes, are seeing Washington stir up all kinds of trouble for China, all part of a grand plot to contain the rising superpower.

Like the best propaganda, this fantasy may contain a germ or two of fact woven into a tapestry of conspiracy. But viewing the strategic shifts under way entirely through a Sino-US prism risks dangerously obscuring the very real fears underpinning China's rise felt by nations across East Asia. These are worries that could cause problems for Beijing in the years ahead if overlooked.

Countries in the region worry too about a Washington too eager to engage in a strategic rivalry with China, and have repeatedly warned against being forced to choose between superpowers in the years ahead. But talking in recent weeks to officials and envoys across the region, it is clear that worries go beyond questions of the US in Asia. They creep beyond the more obvious advantages of political and especially economic engagement with a strong, stable and rich China in years to come.

The comprehensive and assertive way Beijing is dealing with claimed "provocations" from the Philippines, and now Japan, over territorial disputes is spooking officials from New Delhi to Seoul. Economic measures, political and military threats, backed by a propaganda onslaught and rising domestic jingoism, are rapidly changing the existing strategic calculus for dealing with an angry China.

"We are all looking and trying to figure out what leverage could you possibly have against China in this kind of mood?" said one East Asian diplomat. It is a common comment, and one often followed by remarks suggesting that Beijing is fast creating its own regional norms and rules of behaviour.

"It doesn't matter whether you are a rich, advanced neighbour trying to deal with China, a small one, or a large one. Everyone is watching this and feeling they could be in the same boat. Safety in numbers provides at least some protection - and countries around China are definitely working more closely together, but not completely. Likewise, stronger relations with the US … there's leverage in that, too, but that is never going to provide a complete answer."

The need for leverage, for example, is one explanation for Myanmar's moves over the last 18 months or so to not just reform and open up, but suspend work on a Chinese-funded dam on the Irrawaddy. While Myanmar's generals have never been considered masterful strategists, they have suddenly acted in a way that complicates the strategic outlook for their once-dominant giant neighbour.

As the pressure continues to mount on Japan, and its 60-year-old security alliance with the US, one thing is increasingly clear: China's peaceful rise - a claim still asserted by Chinese diplomats behind the scenes - remains a work in progress.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent